feature By: Leo J. Remiger | September, 23
“Determined to work his way out to the plains and become, if possible, the chief of a tribe of Indians.”
Experience earned near the vicinity of Fort Sill soon changed that ambition.
Things were not going as anticipated and he was living from hand to mouth. A party of cowboys, including a man named Browning, rode in from the Brazos and mentioned buffalo were coming in from the north so thick they were eating up the range. They were herding about 800 cattle and drove them through town. While the herd was delayed by the buffalo, Browning made a contract with a Jacksboro merchant named McKibben to deliver 1,000 hides within three months at $2 each, value to be taken out in trade.
The cowboys went to work and in less than three days had scattered the herd so bad they were gone from the range. The total number of hides obtained was between 20 and 30 hides instead of the 1,000 agreed on. Browning tore up the contract and with the rest of his cowboy “buffalo hunters” in tow, drove the cattle back out on the abandoned range – no mention was made of their destination.
A man named Shaw who had been employed grading for the railroad from Dallas to Forth Worth was out of work in the fall of 1873. He owned two idle ox teams. He joined with two other men named Hawes and Frantz, who both owned oxen teams as well, and arranged for a buffalo hunt. They hired James Graham and soon two men named Potter and Davis joined them for protection from the Comanche who had been raiding in the area. Because of his extensive experience on the prairie, James Graham was to be the “killer” of the Shaw outfit while Hawes and Frantz killed for themselves. Sometime during the month of October, 1873, they pulled for the buffalo range, near Jacksboro and Fort Richardson, Jack County, northern Texas.
They purchased two months provisions, a keg of whiskey and several hundred rounds of ammunition, loaded it into their wagon box, grabbed up their needle guns and proceeded west to the buffalo range.
Just a few days prior to their departure, a man had been killed and scalped across the creek from town, not 300 yards from Fort Richardson. They found the country well-wooded until they reached Fort Belknap, at that time a deserted army post. Graham continues his story as follows:
“After leaving the timber, we camped in an open country, fifteen miles from Fort Belknap and two miles from the Rio Brazos. That evening an old buffalo bull straggled into camp. The trouble was not in killing, but in eating him. He was so old that his hide was worthless. His flesh was as tough as shoe leather. The old fellow had been driven from the herd by the younger bulls, and was foraging on his own hook. Wolves were on his track, and would soon have run him down.”
About the middle of the second day they camped on Miller’s Creek, a branch of the Rio Brazos. The grazing for the oxen was good. There were no ranches within 30 miles. They saw small bunches of buffalo, flocks of turkeys and deer among the low hills along with schools of fish in the creek. Potter, Davis and Graham rode out six miles toward the Brazos and found immense herds of buffalo.
They decided to camp at Eagle Spring on the other side of the river. Eagle Spring was named because of a great nest built in the top of a cottonwood tree by a colony of eagles. It wasn’t long before they found the birds would tear up the carcasses of deer and buffalo before they could skin them. It wasn’t long before Graham poisoned a carcass with strychnine and poisoned the entire colony.
“The water on the Brazos at this point was brackish and unpalatable. It was made so by the junction of the Salt Fork of the river, a few miles above. No matter how dry the season, the spring never failed. The banks of the river near it were trodden down, and we could see that herds of buffalo were drinking there every night. We rode out on the divide between the Wichita and the Brazos and found a thick net of buffalo paths leading toward the spring. We made a permanent camp, pitching our tent on the river sands to the left of the gully, so close we could hear the buffalo come in at night, and not so close as to disturb them. Then we cleaned out the spring. The water bubbled up with redoubled force, and dotted the sand of the River with fresh pools. Before we found the spring we had killed from fifteen to twenty buffalo. Word was sent back to Hawes, and his skinners were quickly at work. We tried to induce him to come over to our camp, but he allowed that rolling stones gathered no moss, and he thought the buffalo were thick enough on Miller’s Creek to pay him.”
They spent the first day making pegs for stretching hides, putting up the tent, and gathering buffalo chips and driftwood for fire. The banks of the river were fringed with bushes, but aside from the lone cottonwood, there was no standing timber. They “belled” their oxen and hobbled them as well. They were turned loose on the nutritious grasses of the river bottoms. They dug a small fireplace in the bank and soon ate broiled venison for supper. After pipes and coffee, they turned in for the night.
Bright and early the next morning they went to work. They found a herd feeding on the prairie within two miles of camp. Graham crawled on his hands and knees to leeward and began to pick them off. He shot several under the fore-shoulder, the ball taking a slight range forward. Graham commented:
“This is really the only infallibly vital spot. Greenhorns may riddle an old bull with bullets, and he will stand and shake his head as though bumblebees were buzzing around his ears, and never drop; but one bullet planted by a professional is worth more than a score sent from the gun of an amateur.”
Before noon they had killed 27 buffalo. In the afternoon they skinned the dead buffalo and hauled the green hides to camp.
They remained at the Eagle Spring creek headquarters for nearly two months. Graham described their technique for hunting the buffalo in the vicinity:
“The country was ridged with sand hills covered with coarse grass affording a fair cover while crawling on the herds. Large bunches of the animals were ambushed. We hid ourselves under the banks of the river, and shot them down as they came for water. This was done so often that they became suspicious. They approached the bank, headed by an old bull, with the herd strung out behind him in Indian file. On reaching the edge of the bank, the bull looked carefully up and down the river to see if the coast was clear. If satisfied, he turned back to the file leaders, indicating that it was all right, and dashed over the bank. The file followed without hesitation. If, however, the bull’s suspicions were aroused, he gazed at the suspicious objects as though checking his eyesight. Then he turned his head toward the herd, as though disliking the outlook. Satisfied after another reconnaissance, that there were good grounds for alarm, he viciously whisked his tail. The herd understood the signal. There was an instant stampede. They scattered fan-like, stopping at a distance of two to three hundred yards. There they turned about, apparently to see if there was any cause for running at all, but invariably continued their retreat until miles away from the supposed danger.”
Graham mentions one incident in particular:
“One day, I was lying under the bank of the river when a herd of buffalo approached. Contrary to all precedent, they were led by frisky young calves, who broke over the bank without stopping to reconnoiter. Had I retained my original position; the whole bunch would have trampled over me. I lay in the long grass and saw what was coming. As I got to my feet this stream divided and swept to the right and left. Through the dust I saw an old cow’s head within three feet, and let her have it under the fore shoulder. The impetus with which she was moving was so great that she pitched dead upon the sands at the brink of the river, three rods away. A calf was the next victim. It screwed its tail as the bullet struck it and followed the cow to grass. I next blazed away at the “spike” a three-year-old bull. The first shot was ineffectual. He ran up the river about 100 yards. I kept at his heels and brought him down with the second bullet. By this time the bunch was much scattered. Many animals crossed the river, and others ran down the stream and regained the bluffs below. It was after dark when the slain buffalo were skinned and the green pelts were staked to the ground.”
Sometime after December 20, Shaw, Welsh, Frantz, and Potter loaded the ox wagons with dried hides and pulled for old Fort Belknap. The idea was that the hides would be safe and under cover there. Davis and Graham were left in camp with a horse and two mules. Thieves eventually stole the horse and both mules (Graham saw four Indians on his return to camp after an incident involving a wildcat stealing meat from the carcasses). Graham and Davis followed their trail to Wichita but failed to reclaim their animals.
Graham narrated the following story about three infuriated bulls:
“A funny incident occurred a few days before the mules were stolen. I had been out among the sand hills, and had planted seven bullets in an old bull. He was a tough old fellow, but was finally brought to his knees. I thought he would surely die, and wasted no more ammunition. On returning to camp I told Davis where he lay, and he and Welsh said that they would take his hide early in the morning. That night the wolves scented the old fellow’s blood, and made an assault on him. He fought like a tiger, and would have gone under had not two other bulls come to the rescue. All night long they kept the wolves at bay. In the morning Welsh and Davis went out to look for the wounded bull. I was going up the river, but pointed near where he lay, and told them they would find him in a little hollow near the sand hills. Welsh took his needle gun and went on foot, and Davis followed, mounted on a mule, taking a swingle,* or whiffletree,* to drag the green hide back to camp. On nearing the hollow Welsh saw the three buffalo lying down, and said to Davis: “why, he’s wounded three instead of one, and left us to finish them.” Davis stood up in his saddle, looked at them. “I don’t think he’s hurt any of them.” he said. “Johnny, just try ‘em.’ Welsh crept toward the trio. Two of the bulls got to their feet, and stretched themselves. They gazed at him in astonishment, and began to paw the ground and shake their heads. Welsh dropped on one knee and blazed away. He probably missed them, for infuriated by the assaults of the wolves, they raised their tails, lowered their heads, and with bloodshot eyes charged upon him. He saw them coming in and after a sharp race went into a buffalo wallow like a prairie dog. The bulls then went for Davis. He had scented danger, and headed the mule towards camp. The beast however, was fat and lazy, and did not seem to take in this situation. Davis pounded him with the whiffletree until the blows resounded over the prairie, but could get no head of steam. “Shoot at ‘em, Johnny!” he shouted, but Johnny lay in the wallow, shaking with excitement, and could not shoot. Seeing that there was a slim chance for reaching camp, Davis headed his mule for a mesquite tree, hoping he could find a shelter among its thorns. The slow lope of the mule brought the maddened bulls nearer. Davis finally jumped from the saddle and ran for the tree. He went up the trunk like a squirrel, and had barely perched himself on a top limb before the bulls dashed underneath in pursuit of the mule. Like Davis, the mule took good care of himself, and reached camp and safety.”
When the men returned from Fort Belknap they were chagrined at the loss of the mules. Only two horses were left. Shaw and Davis went back to Millers Creek and camped with Hawes. Potter, Welsh, Frantz and Graham went across to the big Wichita poisoning wolves, and met with moderate success. The country was seamed with canyons and dotted with cedars. Winter was at hand and the weather was becoming cold.
Graham described an interesting incident regarding poisoning buffalo carcasses to obtain wolf hides. A dispute arose between Frantz and Graham about how and where to apply the poison to the carcass to obtain the most wolf hides. Frantz though if the strychnine was placed in a certain part of the carcass it would be more effectual. Graham disagreed and a contest was arranged where by each man would poison their carcass and a pile of wolf hides would be the prize won by the man who obtained the highest number of dead wolves at his carcass. Graham spread a small bottle of strychnine on the parts of the carcass first eaten by wolves, Frantz poisoned his carcass according to his theory. In the morning there were nine dead gray wolves near Graham’s carcass and 13 were found by Frantz at his carcass. The pile of wolf hides went to Frantz.
Graham’s outfit then returned to the Brazos where they found an immense herd of buffalo on the divide between the Brazos and the Wichita. Graham wrote: “It seemed as though all the buffalo on the plains had emigrated to Texas.” However, virtually every green thing had been devoured and there was no grazing for their oxen. They were forced to return to Millers Creek where they joined Shaw and Davis. In the meantime, Hawes had taken over 300 hides and they moved their camp five miles further up the creek. The men hunted three weeks longer and then ran short of flour and the weather turned bad. They returned to Jacksboro after nearly four months on the plains.
In those four months they had taken 1,200 buffalo, 38 deer, 52 wolves and 27 coyotes. They even captured one wild horse.
Graham also killed buffalo strictly for meat. After selling 100 buffalo hides at Sherman for $140 he pulled up into the Cedar Mountains, about 60 miles southwest of Fort Griffin and “killed for meat.” The meat was cured and afterwards sold in Dallas. Only the hams were taken. The rest of the carcass was left to the wolves and ravens. The hams, when cut up and thoroughly cured, did not average more than 80 pounds apiece. In two months, Graham killed and salted down 113 buffalo.
Graham hunted buffalo up to the winter of 1877. Graham said the slaughter was terrible. A hunter named Long, hunting out of Fort Griffin killed 3,000 in one winter. Big Jim White, of Kansas, killed 800 in one month. He said White is supposed to have killed 31 buffalo with 32 consecutive shots. Graham also claims all these buffalo were killed for their hides, the flesh, horns and hoofs were wasted. Thousands of tons of meat, good as beef, rotted on the prairies while hundreds of persons were starving in Eastern cities. “Enough was wasted,” said Graham, “to have made the siege of Paris as long as the siege of Troy.”
“Some of the buffalo hunters own many teams and pay their hunters by the month, or allow them a percentage of the profits. The killer commands the highest price, the skinners and the camp followers ranging next in pay. The killer rides ahead on the pony, with rifle across the pommel of his saddle. His belt is filled with cartridges, which he allows no one to load but himself. The skinners follow in a wagon. When the herd is sighted, the killer rides as near as possible, taking advantage of the wind and any inequalities of ground. After tying his pony to a mesquite bush, he drops upon his knees and begins to crawl upon the herd. Once within rifle shot, he lies face downward, and places two rest-sticks, something like an X on the ground. Over the sticks he sights his game. After the first shot, the herd generally runs at least a hundred yards. Then they turned about and watch the struggles of the dying buffalo. If the killer keeps cover, the herd may come back and paw around the dead body, as cattle do when they smell blood. The killer always tries to shoot the animals likely to lead the herd away. This is what is termed “holding the herd.” It requires great experience. When the leaders fall, the herd, seeing their bodies on the ground, frequently lie down among them, and stay there until stampeded.
“The killer’s work completed, he signals for the wagons to come up, and the skinners draw their knives. Two ropes attached to the axles, trail behind the wagon. Each terminates in a loop. The loops are placed over a fore and hind leg, the team is started, and the dead animal turned on its back. It is held in this position by scotching the wagon. The skinners roll up their sleeves and go to work. The hide is peeled from the belly by a man on each side. Each skinner carries two knives, one for skinning and the other for ripping. The knives are frequently sharpened. A grindstone is usually carried in the wagon. After the hide is removed it is thrown into the wagon, and the skinners move on from carcass to carcass, until the “whole stand,” as it is called, is skinned.
“When taken to camp the pelts are laid in rows in a place known as “the hide yard.” They are spread out flesh side up, and holes are cut near the edges with an axe or tomahawk. If not pressed for time a knife may be used. One of the party goes around with an arm full of pegs, and distributes them on the hides. He averages about 16 pegs to the hide. The skins are next stretched by the pegs driven into the ground. The hides remain there until they become as hard as flint. They are then taken up and sunned. After a day or two they are cramped or folded, flesh side in, like the leaves of a book. Next they are piled, ready for market. Hides are taken in summer are sprinkled with poison to keep the bugs out of them. Thousands of hides are spoiled by the rains. Frequently the wolves get at them and tear them to pieces. Some hunters kill the animals all the year round, even slaughtering the cows with calf. Others condemned this practice, and will not associate with those who follow it. There are many professional terms. A “cripple” is a buffalo that has been wounded and is afterward discovered and killed. A “spike” is a young bull. The best hides are tanned and reserved for robes. Others are made into leather. The coarser ones are turned into harness, being too porous for shoes.”
“Those who hunt the bison for his meat are a class by themselves. A hole like a grave is dug in the ground and a hide placed there in with the fur toward the earth. The rim of the hide is staked to the edge of the grave, and makes a leather vat. The hams, are cut into three chunks and thrown into the vat. They are sprinkled with salt and seasoned with saltpeter. The vat is then covered with a stiff hide and the meat thus protected from the sun. Tongues are pickled in a similar way. After the meat is thoroughly soaked it is taken out of the vat and cut into smooth pieces. These pieces are strung on bear grass and hung in a rude smokehouse covered with hides. The meat cannot be smoked too much. It cures according to the weather. Sometimes it is in the smokehouse two months before it is marketable. It finds a ready sale in the frontier towns, and is frequently sold as far south as New Orleans. It is very palatable.
“Half the fun in killing buffalo,” said Graham, “is in observing their curious actions. I have stuck up a hat and seen a whole herd gather around it, and stare at it for hours. If one animal gets bogged, a half-dozen others are pretty sure to fall into the trap. Anything will stampede them. The stupidity is most remarkable. ‘As stupid as a buffalo’ is a common expression among hunters. The little calves are more suspicious than their parents. Bulls have shorter tales than cows. Their tails are bad fly brushes, for they could not hit a fly in a week.”
“When the fleshy side of the green hide is exposed to the sun, the skin becomes as hard as iron. Four years ago a party of Texas cowboys caught a horse thief on the border of the Indian Territory. As there was no tree handy on which to hang him, they sewed him up in a green buffalo hide and left it on the plains, under the burning sun. A year afterward the hide was found. The skeleton rattled within it as do dried peas in a pod. It was cut open with an axe, and the remains of the unfortunate thief were identified by the clothes.”1
*Swingle: A swingle is a wooden instrument like a large knife that is about two feet long, has one thin edge, and is used for beating and cleaning flax.
*Whiffletree: An alteration of the word whippletree, the whiffletree is a pivoted crossbar attached to the traces of a draft horse or a team, and also attached to a vehicle or farm implement. This allowed the pulling to be equalized so that the load wouldn’t tip or a wagon be pulled off course.
1. The Doom of the Buffalo, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio, 23 November 1878